Lisa Kachnic, MD, FASTRO
Professor & Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology
Vanderbilt University Medical Center & Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center
Lisa Kachnic's road to becoming a renowned researcher and radiation oncologist began with a little divine intervention.
"During my Catholic high school years in New York, my passions were journalism, science, music and sports," Kachnic said. One day, the school's principal, Sister Mary Margaret, summoned the top 10 academic students to her office. "We were placed against the wall akin to a police lineup. Sister Mary Margaret then tapped each of us with her long ruler and assigned our lifelong vocations. I happened to be anointed the 'physician' of the group," Kachnic explained with a grin.
Although the proclamation scuttled her plans to become a big city news anchor ... or even better, an MTV VJ ... she dutifully dug into her new career and found she loved it. Kachnic excelled in the lab and began extracting and analyzing DNA while still in high school, refining her work as a research scholar during undergrad at Boston College, medical school at Tufts and residency at Harvard.
"In my third year of medical school, I was on an oncology rotation where I met a fellow medical student who thought I might be very interested in a career in radiation oncology because he knew that I was especially fond of the lab, enjoyed surgical procedures and loved taking care of patients with cancer," she said.
Instantly hooked on her specialty, Kachnic credits a number of mentors for meaningfully impacting her career. An early, and continuing, role model was Anthony Zietman, MD, associate director of the Harvard Radiation Oncology Residency Program. Kachnic said he stressed the radiation oncologist's role was so much more than pushing a radiation machine button to destroy cancer cells. Instead, he counseled, the most effective way to contribute to care is to address the whole patient and learn what is most valued by that patient and their family. "I've embraced this important lesson throughout my career and strive to share these skills with our future generations of radiation oncologists," she said.
Internationally recognized for her clinical trial leadership, much of her work has focused on gastrointestinal cancers. In addition to research and clinical roles, she has been active within professional organizations throughout her career and currently serves as president of the American Board of Radiology.
Having spent close to 15 years at Boston University, where she was department chair, Kachnic made the move to Vanderbilt in the fall of 2015. Not quite sure what to make of Nashville after spending her whole life in the Northeast, uncertainty was swept away after stepping on campus at the academic medical center. "They were just so real and collegial," she said of that first meeting at Vanderbilt. "To find such engaged leadership who worked with all their department heads was refreshing."
A big music and sports fan, Kachnic and her family also quickly warmed to the city's diverse live music scene and embraced the Predators as proud residents of Smashville. She is married to Stephen Englert, a NCAA Division I baseball coach, and mother of Samantha 'Sammi' Englert, who recently graduated from Pitzer College. With her husband coaching in the Cape Cod league in the summer, the family makes lots of trips back and forth between their two hometowns.
While the 5 am Monday return flight to Nashville might be a bit rough, Kachnic is ready to tackle a long list of priorities as soon as the wheels touch down. Excited over the advances in immunotherapy, she is exploring the impact of radiation on the immune response. "Here at Vanderbilt, we are now studying the interrelationship between radiation and the immune environment," she explained. "One of the compelling attractions for my joining the faculty at Vanderbilt was the unique opportunity to discover the answer to this important question."
On a personal level, she is also developing a national clinical trial to evaluate vaccine therapy for anal cancer and leading her department's work investigating how novel imaging technologies could allow radiation oncologists to better understand real-time responses to further personalize treatment.
"While I'm not optimistic that we will find the 'magic cure' for all cancer types in my career, I am certain that we will make great strides in further improving cancer outcomes and quality of survivorship. "Taking care of cancer patients is a distinct privilege," Kachnic concluded.